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The Future of Work

Debunking The Myth That Jerk Bosses Get Results

There are plenty of notoriously mean bosses out there that get results, but are their attitudes hurting the business in the long haul?

[Image: g-stockstudio via Shutterstock]

Over the years we’ve seen some shining examples of notorious brutes pretty much killing it. From examining their managerial style and their success, one might correlate the two and conclude that being a jerk is the best way to get stuff done.

Don’t fall for it.

The likes of Gordon Ramsay and Steve Jobs built their empires by bullying their employees. Ramsay’s entire career seems almost entirely centered around being a foul-mouthed bad boy on reality cooking shows like Hell's Kitchen and MasterChef. And while you could take his bullying tactics with a pinch of salt (no pun intended) and chalk it all up to the reality TV biz, the numerous high-profile feuds with family members, business partners, and fellow chefs go to show that in Ramsay’s case, art likely imitates life.

Famous Apple innovator Steve Jobs was also notorious for his not so touchy feely management style. As Google’s former chief of product Jonathan Rosenberg explained in a deposition earlier this year, "In our interactions with Steve, he generally exhibited an irate, difficult, ornery, and petulant behavior."

In his biography, Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson chronicled incidents of Jobs hurdling boorish insults at business partners during meetings, berating an aging Whole Foods employee for making his smoothie insufficiently, laying off numerous employees without severance or notice, and even firing a manager in front of his entire team.

"He could stun an unsuspecting victim with an emotional towel-snap, perfectly aimed," Isaacson wrote.

While these entrepreneurs (and many other jerk bosses) achieved great success, it came in spite of their bad attitudes, not because of them.

"Even people who worked with Jobs told me that they'd seen him make people cry many times, but that 80% of the time he was right," author and management expert Robert Sutton told the Atlantic. "It is troubling that there's this notion in our culture that if you're a winner, it's okay to be an asshole."

Research suggests (unsurprisingly) that bossing people around breeds resistance, reticence, and retribution in a workforce. Additionally, shaming and bullying employees has been shown to kill creativity, productivity, engagement, and trust, among other things. Study after study shows that jerk bosses are bad for our physical and emotional well-being, and bad for business overall.

In The Art of Being Unreasonable: Lessons in Unconventional Thinking, Eli Broad writes, "When it comes to motivating people, fear is as overrated as praise." Fear is a powerful motivator when it comes to primal things like learning not to touch hot objects, but it isn’t appropriate in the workplace—we're more evolved than that.

When you motivate with fear, you run the risk of completely paralyzing your workers, or worse scaring them away. And those that do choose to stick around are more likely to make mistakes.

What’s more, fear of failure is one of the greatest reasons people procrastinate. When people are afraid their work may bring about derision and retribution, they are more likely to delay completing it.

Life is too short to be miserable—and to work with miserable people—so if you’re behaving badly, it won’t be too long before your best employees take their brilliant ideas to a better work environment.

And if all this is still not convincing you to avoid leading with fear and bullying tactics, I leave you with some sage advice: "Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering."

Well said, Yoda, well said.

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